Child Epileptics to Receive Marijuana

Health Ministry approves use of medical cannabis for young epilepsy patients - but not adults.

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Health Ministry has decided to approve the use of medical marijuana for children suffering from extreme cases of epilepsy, but only if other drugs are ineffective or less effective.

The ministry estimates that some 200 Israeli children currently suffer from complex seizures of varying degrees of severity. In these cases, the epileptic seizure is accompanied by other symptoms, either for genetic reasons or due to neurological development problems.

Today, the ministry doesn’t officially permit cannabis to be prescribed for epileptics at all, whether children or adults, so patients who want permission to use the drug must apply to an exceptions committee. So far, the ministry’s medical cannabis department has permitted 10 epileptic children to use the drug – four in the past, and six just recently.

But the change it has decided to approve now will apply only to children, and only to those who suffer from complex seizures. The ministry still hasn’t decided whether to approve cannabis for adult epileptics as well.

The ministry is expected to publish an official document on prescribing cannabis to epileptic children in the next few weeks, formulated in consultation with pediatric neurologists. The document will detail how epileptic children should be treated with the drug and which doctors will be authorized to prescribe it. The ministry has also decided to commission a study to determine under what conditions cannabis is effective in children suffering from uncontrolled epilepsy.

The issue of prescribing medical marijuana for children in general, and for epileptics in particular, is also currently being discussed by a professional committee of the Israel Ambulatory Pediatric Association. But this committee hasn’t yet finished its deliberations or drafted recommendations.

The severe symptoms epilepsy can produce are what motivated the ministry to approve the use of cannabis. Nevertheless, treating children with cannabis remains controversial in the medical community, and the effects of the drug aren’t yet fully clear. The treatment has some enthusiastic backers, but other experts argue that cannabis is liable to cause neurological damage in children, and should therefore only be used on adults – and even then only in very specific cases.

Nevertheless, Israel is so far thought to have permitted cannabis to be prescribed to somewhere between 80 and 100 children, most of them cancer patients.

Unlike adults, children do not imbibe cannabis by smoking it. Instead, it is administered in drops, in cookies or via an inhaler.

Severe epilepsy seriously impairs the patient’s quality of life, resulting in frequent seizures and developmental delays. As a result, the use of medical marijuana for such patients has grown common in recent years, especially in the United States.

A study done by Stanford University’s neurology department, which was published in December 2013, showed that cannabis was more effective than other drugs in epileptic children. However, the study relied on a very small sample – 19 children.

Medical marijuana buds being packaged in Israel.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik